Scruffy and stocky, he enters every room with backslapping joviality; she is elegant and willowy, and impresses visitors with an air of mysterious reserve. He has nimbly climbed the rungs of the establishment; she has spent most of her political career under house arrest. He is known for surreal digressions about table tennis and being “reincarnated as an olive”; she, for solemn words about democracy and human rights. Nevertheless, there is a striking resemblance between Boris Johnson and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The clue comes in a recent article by Ben Rhodes, former foreign policy adviser to Obama. Rhodes wonders—he doesn’t quite put it like this—whether he was fooled by Suu Kyi, who “embodied hope” to him and helped persuade the Obama administration to open up trade and diplomatic relations with Myanmar. Did this opening-up, as some claim, make Myanmar’s military-led government decide it could get away with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya? In agonizing over that question, Rhodes accuses Suu Kyi of a “stark betrayal” of her values. But he also admits that it was easy to imagine you knew what those values were. “Her lack of specificity—her idealism can be platitudinous—allowed others to project their own beliefs onto her, and made them feel that her cause was their own.”
Which is just what people say about Boris Johnson. He appears both as a no-nonsense, old-fashioned chap who dislikes political correctness, and as a liberal cosmopolitan who loves London, international finance, and mass immigration. He can convince both sides of a debate that he agrees with them—sometimes simultaneously, as when he mocked Muslim women in the course of defending their right to wear the niqab. His own views are fluid and elusive: In 2016 he famously drafted two newspaper columns—one in favor of Brexit, one against—before announcing his position. He is, like Suu Kyi, easy to project beliefs onto.
The new “populists,” of left and right, often share this combination of charisma and vagueness. They are vividly present, until you try and get hold of them. Matteo Salvini, for instance, displays neo-pagan and Christian symbols on the same shelf, and defends legal abortion while palling around with pro-lifers. Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy has been to seem both pro- and anti-Brexit: They call it “constructive ambiguity.”
“Well, that’s just politics,” the reader may interrupt. “Leaders have always been masters of appearance, cleverly holding together coalitions. This isn’t anything new.” But there are two big reasons why this age is producing so many chameleons.
The obvious one is that modern media—especially social media—encourages cheap intimacy. Politicians don’t need to actually be compassionate if they are good at giving hugs in front of the cameras. They don’t need to be courageous if they can sound bold and indignant on Twitter. And they don’t need to share anybody’s values, as long as they appear to. Technology has, notoriously, filled social life with illusions. It has done the same to politics.
The second reason is the breakdown of trust in institutions and the rise of charismatic individuals—not just in politics, by the way. Football clubs have lost their authority to “player power”; religious believers look to “super-peers” on the Internet rather than official leaders or traditions; in the world of ideas, podcasts and YouTube lecturers have broken the academy’s hold.
As it happens, a lot of our institutions don’t deserve our trust. The political parties have failed, the elites have abdicated while keeping their privileges, the universities have forgotten their raison d’etre, the mainstream media have avoided difficult truths, the religious leaders have been hypocritical. But the era of charisma could be even worse.
To survive it, we need the distinction Christopher Caldwell drew in his extraordinary essay about the opioid crisis. Caldwell noted that this epidemic, in which governments and corporations jointly made addictive drugs ubiquitous, had a lot to do with Reaganism. America in the ’80s and ’90s, Caldwell wrote,
was guided by a coalition of profit-seeking corporations and concerned traditional communities, both of which had felt oppressed by a high-handed government. But whereas Reaganism gave real power to corporations, it gave only rhetorical power to communities. Eventually, when the interests of corporations and communities clashed, the former were in a position to wipe the latter out. The politics of the 1980s wound up enlisting the American middle class in the project of its own dispossession.
Real empowerment or rhetorical empowerment: that is the question. Thanks to our charismatic leaders, rhetorical empowerment is everywhere—hashtags, slogans, denunciations, demands. Meanwhile, the actual shift of power continues, perhaps far away, perhaps nearby, but most likely without people noticing. Real empowerment, for good or ill, tends to happen quietly.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.